The history of the Tulip is filled with intrigue, skulduggery, thievery, instant fortunes and broken hearts. And, although these flowers are synonymous with the Dutch, Tulips did not originate in the Netherlands nor were the Dutch always at the forefront of breeding these beauties. The Dutch obsession with Tulips belongs to the relatively recent history of the Tulip.
If only Tulips could talk, they’d tell many interesting and twisted tales about their history. Unfortunately they can’t talk which makes tracing their history a “mission impossible” – although many have tried. The attempts to trace the exact history of the Tulip have been thwarted by a lack of reliable documentation over the centuries although art from as early as the 12th century does give some clues.
What historians have been able to establish is that Tulips probably originated thousands of years ago in a ‘corridor’ which stretches along the 40º latitude between Northern China and Southern Europe.
The first wave of Tulipomania hits… in Turkey.
Tulips are remarkable flowers which seem to have the power to capture hearts (and break them). Although the Dutch Tulipomania is the most famous, Tulips have experienced other periods of “power” in other countries. The first mania occurred way back in 1500’s in Turkey – which was the time of the Ottoman Empire and of Sultan Suleiman I (1494-1566). Tulips became highly cultivated blooms, developed for the pleasure of the Sultan and his entourage. During the Turkish reign of Ahmed III (1703-30) it is believed that the Tulip reigned supreme as a symbol of wealth and prestige and the period later became known as ‘Age of the Tulips’.
The Turks had strict laws governing the cultivation and sale of Tulips. For example: during the reign of Sultan Ahmed III, it was forbidden to buy or sell tulips outside the capital – a crime punishable by exile (which is a mild punishment compared to torture). It was often commented that, during this time, the tulip was more highly valued than a human life.
It was during the early 1700’s that the Turks began what was probably the first of the Tulip Festivals which was held at night during a full moon. Hundreds of exquisite vases were filled with the most breath-taking Tulips, crystal lanterns were used to cast an enchanting light over the gardens whilst aviaries were filled with canaries and nightingales that sang for the guests. Romantically, all guests were required to wear colours which harmonised with the flowers!
At this time the Dutch were already experimenting with the development of the Tulip but the Turks were still far ahead and far more enchanted by the blooms.
Tulips arrive in Europe:
During the second half of the 16th century, news of the extraordinary flower reached Europe and seeds were then sent to the prefect (Clusius) of the Royal Medicinal Gardens in Prague. This event marked the arrival of the Tulip to Europe.
Some years later (1593), Clusius fled to The Netherlands for religious sanctuary and became the curator of the Leiden botanical gardens. Although these gardens were planted chiefly for the supply of herbs and plants for medicinal purposes, Clusius had brought his huge collection of Tulips (rumoured to be one of the most impressive in Western Europe at the time) with him and so planted these also in the gardens.
Historians say that Clusius was a selfish gardener. He was keeping his beloved Tulips to himself and refused to sell or share them with anyone – despite many generous offers. Naturally, with their growing popularity Tulips aroused intense interest and some Tulip devotees became so desperate that they eventually resorted to sneaking into the gardens and stealing some. Apparently this act so disgusted Clusius that he gave up any dealings with Tulips. He never even grew them again.
However, now that the Tulips were ‘set free’ from the botanical gardens there were plenty of others willing to grow the bulbs.
“Tulipomania” fever races through the Dutch
Tulips were originally a natural curiosity and a hobby for the extremely rich. The fascination with the tulips, its endless mutations and mystery, gave it increasing value of immense proportions.
Speculation on Tulip bulbs began building quickly as the middle and upper classes sought them as the ultimate symbol of wealth and prosperity. Along with avaries of exotic birds and large, decorative fountains, there would always be Tulips in the garden of any self respecting Emperor, King, Prince, Archbishop or member of the aristocracry. Often mirrors would be set up in the garden to give the illusion that the owner had been able to afford to plant many more tulips than he actually had.
Until 1630 the bulbs were grown and traded only between connoisseurs and scholars but more commercially minded people soon noticed the ever increasing prices being paid for certain Tulips and thought they’d found the perfect “get rich quick” scheme. And so the popularity of the Tulip increased and more and more people became caught up in the trade. Groups of speculators were meeting regularly in the local inns to buy and sell Tulip bulbs. (The innkeepers of the time really flourished!)
It wasn’t long before the majority of the Dutch community became obsessed with these flowers. Those who could not afford the bulbs settled instead for art, furniture, embroideries and ceramics which featured the flowers.
Many of the gorgeous Tulip water colours painted during this period are now considered works of art but were, at the time, painted for catalogues with which to tempt buyers into ever more extravagant purchases. It was only ever the most expensive Tulips (ie those with ‘broken’ colour) which were painted.
Since bulbs were sold by weight, most people were speculating on the future weight of the bulb once it was dug. All investors had to do was plant some bulbs and sit back on the reasonable assumption that the bulbs would grow whilst in the ground. It was like making money out of thin air and hence this speculating also became known as “the wind trade”.
From the period of 1634 to 1637 bulb prices sky rocketed as ‘Tulip fever’ spread like wild fire amongst the normally solid and sensible Dutch. Bulbs of one or two Guilders could be worth a hundred Guilders just a few months later and bulbs would change ownership several times before they even bloomed for the first time.
The period of absurd speculation became known as “Tulipomania” (officially 1636 – 1637) and the phenomenon was so intense that it still puzzles historians and economists until this day. Such was the absurdity of the period that, at the peak of Tulipomania, a single bulb could be sold for a price which could have purchased a house in the best parts of Amsterdam! (The equivalent of 15 year’s wages for the average bricklayer).
During “Tulipomania” there were many who tried to stop or slow down the absurd speculation. Pastors and moralists warned their followers against such an obsession with worldly goods whilst the government also tried passing laws to stop the whild speculation.
The Bubble bursts – along with many fortunes.
The inevitable ‘crash’ of Tulip prices happened in 1637 when a group of sellers could not get the prices they wanted and people everywhere suddenly came to their senses. Everyone saw that the current Tulip prices were ‘artificial’ and their value as elusive as the wind!
Many people lost everything they owned and for them it was a tragic ending and many many people of the day never liked the flower again. However, for many others Tulipomania had done little to lessen the flower’s beauty and grace and some of the rare varieties could still command huge prices. By the 1640’s (when Tulipomania was considered to have passed) Semper Augustus, for example, could still fetch a price of 1,200 guilders (ie approximately 3 times the annual average wage) which would be, in Australian terms – approximately $120,000.
Tulips until today.
During the 17th and 18th century, the Tulip still reigned supreme elsewhere in Europe but the dramatic close of the 18th century and start of the 19th century (the French Revolution, Napoleon’s invasion and the occupation of The Netherlands) brought a more sober approach to life and the Tulip.
Over the following decades, interest in the Tulip rose and fell but the Dutch maintained a commercial devotion to these flowers (today they export 1.2 billion bulbs annually). This is why the Tulip is now synonymous with the Dutch.
It is the Dutch migrants, settling in new homes scattered around the world, who are largely responsible for further spreading the popularity of the Tulip today. Not surprisingly, this is also how Tulips arrived in Silvan in the gorgeous Dandenong Ranges of Victoria, Australia.
The Dutch arrive in Silvan – along with their Tulip bulb.
In 1939 Cees and Johanna Tesselaar arrived in the Dandenong Ranges from Holland. They had left on their wedding day and brought with them little else except a willingness to work hard and a love of Tulips (see the About Tesselaar page for more information). Over the next few years they settled into the area and began growing Tulips.
News of their “little piece of Holland” spread and so many of the ‘Dutchies’ who arrived during the 1950s flood of immigrants headed straight for the Tesselaar farm where they found a place to stay and a steady job.
Many of these people stayed in the area and began their own farms so that today the area is dominated by the “Dutchies” and their beloved Tulips. (It is also the home of the annual Tesselaar Tulip Festival).
Thanks to the many stories like these being mirrored around all around the globe, the popularity of the Tulip remains strong almost world wide. Thankfully today there is also a ready international supply of the bulbs to ensure that these graceful and elegant blooms are readily affordable for most gardeners.
Great books for further reading on Tulips: “The Tulip” (Bloomsbury). UK. Pavord, Anna 1999
“The Book of Tulips” The Vendome Press (Distributed by Viking Press) USA, Lodewijk,T. 1979
From dry hillsides to the Turkish court to Holland’s hybridizers and investors
There are about 150 species of “wild” tulips. Their ancestral region centers around the Pamir Alai and Tien-Shan Mountain Ranges near the modern-day Russian/Chinese border. They occur farther east into China, and west all the way to France and Spain, but most are from arid areas of Central Asia.
The Turks glorified tulips long before the Dutch
You may have heard that tulips “come from Turkey.” It would be more accurate to say that before the Europeans paid any attention, the early botanists of the great Ottoman Empire, also called the Turkish Empire, were very interested. In fact, the Turks were cultivating tulips as early as 1,000 AD. But their empire was far larger than modern-day Turkey. The tulips Europeans finally imported hail from areas that are now parts of Russia, around the Black Sea, the Crimea, and even the steppes north of the Caucasus, all parts of the ancient Ottoman Empire.
The Tale of the Tulip
A famous legend from Turkish lore tells of a handsome prince named Farhad who was stricken with love for the fair maid, Shirin. One day he heard that she had been killed, and in his grief, mounted his favorite horse and galloped over a cliff to his death. It is said that from each droplet of his blood, a scarlet tulip sprang up, making the flower an historic symbol of perfect love.
During the glory of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultans celebrated the tulip, and the flowers became part of the trappings of wealth and power. One famous story tells of a Sultan who spent too much on a tulip festival which ultimately led to him “losing his head.” So well before the Dutch began their love affair with tulips, they were widely celebrated in their native lands. Today, the tulip is still the national flower of Turkey.